Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Seattle Mariners Offense: Barely Better Than Worst of All Time

Go ahead, pray to Mecca. Do whatever it takes.
So we're almost 70 games into the season and the Mariners are still, shockingly, "contenders". Their pitching has been fantastic, and that it's not even really being buoyed by an over-the-top performance by Felix. They are, in fact, 4th in the league in wins above replacement as an entire pitching staff and have the 6th best ERA in all of baseball. But I think it's time for a little heart to heart about the offense.

I've read a lot recently about how the recent call-ups have breathed some life into the offense or they're bound to score more runs with these new bats in the order or how exciting these new kids are that swing as hard as they can at every pitch damn the outcome. Hogwash.

For as absolutely putrid as their offense was last year, it's not a huge compliment to say that this group isn't quite as bad. Because objectively, this offense is pretty darn bad -- and if it continues to be this bad, they're simply not going to be considered contenders unless a .480 winning percentage will get them a pennant.

I might get a little stat-nerdy here, but I'll try to give you an idea of what some of these stats measure if you're not familiar with them. If you are familiar with them, well, then you won't need the contextual information to know why it's not good news.

Let's start simple. They have the lowest batting average in all of baseball at .228. Even in their terrible, horrible, no good, very bad 2010, they hit .236 (which was also a major league worst).

They are simply not scoring runs, and if they could even be anywhere close to league average in runs scored, they'd probably be about 10 games over .500 at this point. Right now, they are tied for dead last in runs scored with the Oakland A's at 244. Yes, that's about 3.5 runs per game, which is pretty pathetic - and even considering how totally superb their pitching has been, they are -10 in run differential on the season. If the pitching ever begins to falter, things could get ugly in a damn hurry.

The Mariners have the lowest on base percentage in the majors at .297. That's actually even worse than 2010 (to be fair, it's practically identical at .298). They have the second worst slugging percentage at .340. So not only are they not hitting, not walking or getting on base via HBP/moxie/other, they're not hitting for any power to speak of.

Getting a tiny bit more sophisticated, can we squeeze some additional value out of the Mariner offense by looking at weighed rate stats, which might see something that those traditional counting stats might not? Well, the gold standard for a linear weight of total contribution for a hitter is weighted On Base Average or wOBA, which is designed to be like an on base percentage but, as Fangraphs describes it, it is "based on a simple concept: not all hits are created equal...(wOBA) combines all the different aspects of hitting into one metric, weighting each of them in proportion to their actual run value."

After that introduction, you'd think I'd have some good news - but the reality is the Mariners are dead last in the major leagues in wOBA at .285. A .285 wOBA might be the worst of the bunch, in fact - it is just awful. Awful, awful, awful.

Are the M's as a whole getting unlucky? One way to measure that is to look at batting average on balls in play, or BABIP. If you've watched enough baseball, you know that sometimes a player hits the tar out of the ball on four consecutive at bats, but each one goes directly at someone while another guy winds up with an infield hit, a seeing eye single, and a bloop double. One looks like Babe Ruth and the other looks like Babe the Pig while the latter actually squared the ball up much better. Well, BABIP likes to take all that into consideration based on hit trajectory - that if you hit a line drive, you ought to have a batting average on those hits a little over .700, if you hit a ground ball, it should be a little over .230, and if you hit a fly ball, it should be around .140.

Well, interestingly, as a team - their BABIP is .268. Their expected BABIP (based on hit trajectory) is .308. So they actually have been getting a raw deal on the lucky hop. This is something that should improve, but it's not so significant that it will suddenly make their offense chug like Thomas the Tank. We're talking about a handful of hits that fall in here and there, and while that certainly could have an impact on the number of runs they score, it's more likely to turn this offense from a 3.5 runs per game to 3.7, and that's not going to net you a ton of wins in the end.

I really hope the Mariners start to rattle the bats, I really do. I want this team to win. But I have this sinking feeling that their pitching is performing a little over their collective heads and their offense is not showing any signs of life. With the bats that we have, and the bats that we have to call up, what this team needs is, excuse my French, a shit-pile of luck -- bounces like this one day in and day out. They need to turn that BABIP into about .330 - balls falling in and rolling past gloves in ridiculous ways. We need players to contribute in ways that are totally unexpected and probably entirely unsustainable. But the team needs some good old fashioned magic.

To be this far into the season and only be 1 game back of first is just awesome and it makes the team fun to follow. And I'd really rather that it doesn't end. Maybe the M's don't win the West, but how about if they could figure out how to pull together 84 wins and keep it interesting and entertaining? May the baseball Gods smile on you, Seattle, and bring you ridiculous offensive luck.

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